What Do Two Turtle Doves Represent? Discovering a Yuletide Tradition

For centuries, two turtle doves have been an iconic part of the classic Christmas song “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. But what is the history behind these gentle birds and what do they signify in the midst of holiday celebrations?

As we unpack the enduring tradition of two turtle doves, we’ll discover a meaning far richer than just the lyrics to a familiar carol.

Turtle Doves as Historical Heralds of Summer and Romance

Turtledoves have long captured our wonder and imagination across cultures worldwide. Their rich symbolism traces back over 5000 years ago to ancient Egyptian inscriptions depicting the small grey and rusty-red wild pigeons as heralds of enduring love.

Perhaps no other bird has been so universally revered for embodying romance and marital commitment. This stems in large part from the turtledove’s unique behavior as lifelong mating pairs who exhibit remarkable loyalty. If one dove perishes, the survivor will often remain single for the rest of their life.

Beyond monogamy, turtle doves also signal changing seasons…arriving in Europe by summer’s end after an arduous 9000 mile migratory pattern stretching from Africa to the Mediterranean basin and onwards to England.

Spring Homecoming Brings Rebirth, Renewal and New Beginnings

Since relatively few survived this treacherous passage each year, witnessing the first turtledove sighting held great significance to many cultures. Christians viewed it as a time to give thanks and signify renewal, while the Greeks and Romans marked it with fertility celebrations.

Regardless of belief, their homecoming brought promise of warmer days ahead. So inextricably were turtle doves linked to summer that their very name in Latin translates to “summer bird.”

The Dove’s Cooing Echoes Through the Ages

Beyond the welcome timing of their return, turtle doves also ushered summer through impassioned courtship and songfests filled with amorous cooing. The males vocally woo females by emitting short and deep throbbing notes described as “hoo-hroooo…hoo-hroooo.”

So stirring was this amatory chorus that Egyptians, Greeks and Romans invoked turtledoves to sanctify marriage rites and bring good fortune to newly betrothed couples. Dove-call whistles even became popular wedding party favors.

These summery birds so embedded themselves in romantic myth and custom they inspired an enduring legacy reflected in visual arts, poetry and literature over the centuries.

Biblical Accounts Cement the Dove as a Christian Symbol

The biblical narrative also features the dove prominently, cementing its importance as a Christian symbol of promise, hope and new beginnings.

In the iconic story of Noah’s Ark, Noah first releases a raven that never returns. He then dispatches a dove that comes back bearing an olive leaf, indicating floodwaters had sufficiently receded to support new life.

Dove Mentions Throughout Scripture Align with Purity and Sacrifice

References embed the dove in other meaningful contexts as well. The Pentecost gifts the apostles ability to spread salvation to all nations through numerous dialects, symbolized by descending “tongues of fire” upon them. Elsewhere, dove’s blood is revered as a sacred offering.

These two depictions inspired symbolic links between doves and baptism by fire and blood respectively. By New Testament times, Christians overwhelmingly accepted the dove as the premier avatar of spirit, blessings, sacrifice and peace.

Why Were Turtle Doves Specifically So Highly Prized?

Now wild turtledoves themselves merit special prestige in Mosaic Law concerning ceremonial sacrifices to ameliorate sin and impurity.

When certain offerings were too dear for supplicants to afford costly lambs, two turtle doves or two young pigeons could serve as substitutes.

Factoring in how seldom Scripture mentions specific species, these passages underline turtle doves’ status as especially prized and sacred as offerings. Such favor flows from the very traits that distinguish them – unmatched loyalty, devotion and purity as a monogamous life pair.

So it’s easy to see how a beloved creature playing a special role in seminal Bible stories became permanently elevated in Christian symbology.

How Turtledoves Came to Coo Through Christmas

Already boasting millenia as icons of summer, fertility and enduring romance, turtle doves won nearly universal esteem through art and literature by medieval times. With socketed Christian symbolism, the birds gained even greater fame across Europe.

Against this backdrop emerged the English Christmas song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” in the late 18th century. The meter immortalized the custom where suitors gave escalating gifts each day leading up to Christmas to press marital intentions.

It’s no coincidence then that on the second day, two turtle doves are proffered by the smitten crooner. Beyond numerical parity, the pairing signals a profound double entendre underscoring the birds’ significance as eternal mates.

What better way to emphatically telegraph everlasting fidelity and hopeful betrothal from lovesick admirer to recipient!

Nature’s Charming Ambassadors Overflow with Meaning

The twelve days wholly embraces charming nature metaphors, with French hens, calling birds, geese, and swans rounding out the menagerie. Our determined suitor plies every conceivable winged creature to convey fervent marital pursuit.

But none hold such singular meaning as the turtledoves on second day. Even amidst the accumulating overtures and escalating overtures, those two cooing purveyors of loyalty and longevity fast became the iconic touchstone conveying true love’s ultimate aim – a lifetime together.

Though turtle doves may no longer throng England’s trees after centuries of bounty hunting and habitat loss diminished their numbers, they’re now protected species across the UK from shooting and trapping.

Just as well, for regardless their plight in nature, symbolic turtledoves still resonate loudly as avatars of faithfulness associated with some of history’s most celebrated love stories.

Perhaps their ancient clarion call shall sing for centuries more about devotion’s divine eternal flame…fanning hopes and hearts with the promise of beginnings from every end.